Stephanie Johnes on Riding Maya Gabeira’s Waves of Tenacity

An interview with the director of Maya and the Wave

21 mins read

For over a decade, director Stephanie Johnes rode a wild narrative wave, following the highs and lows of the career of her subject, Maya Gabeira. Maya and the Wave shows how the charismatic Brazilian big wave rider carved her own path in a sport that’s been dominated by men for decades. Setting her sites on some of the biggest adventures of the sport, we witness the grit, determination, and obsession of this remarkable athlete as she pushes the limits of both her body and her community’s acceptance while seeking to be the best at what she does. (Read our review of Maya and the Wave from TIFF.)

Far from a simple sports doc that shows off some gnarly imagery (which, to be fair, it does in spades), Johnes dives deeply into Gabeira’s story, providing an unvarnished look at her subject and the often self-destructive tendencies that underlie this quest for excellence. This is a complex story told with a tenacity that matches the subject. The film maintains its balance despite the various forces that try to unsettle it, and presents Gabeira’s story in a manner that’s both visually breathtaking and emotionally rich.

POV spoke with Johnes following the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Maya and the Wave opens DOC NYC in November.

POV: Jason Gorber
SJ: Stephanie Johnes
The following has been edited for concision and clarity


POV: Congratulations on the film. I thought it was truly extraordinary. At TIFF, I got to see it on an IMAX screen. What was your own experience watching on that giant canvas after spending years watching it on your computer?

SJ: It was amazing, actually. I was really worried because you never know if the image is going to hold up that big. I was stressing out about it beforehand, but we did shoot it in 4K, and I thought the result looked awesome. My cinematographer was with me and he was really proud. He’s been filming in Nazaré, Portugal for years, and has never been able to see his waves on the screen that big! [TIFF international documentary programmer] Thom Powers talked about how it’s a 90 ft screen, and Maya’s record-breaking wave was 73 feet and a half, so it was very cool.

POV: What does it mean to you to play a festival like Toronto? What the festival experience was like this year being in person, having such an intimate story being embraced by an audience?

SJ: We’ve been making this film very quietly, kind of under a rock in this tiny town in Portugal for 10 years. You dream of the moment when you get to share with an audience. It’s pretty amazing when they stand up and clap in one of the most important film festivals in the world, so that was definitely a dream come true. I had a great time.


POV: How did the project start? Did it start as simply shooting Maya’s endeavors and then became a much more personal story?

SJ: I felt Maya was an interesting person in an interesting environment. I’m just very curious about a woman who wants to surf giant waves, with only men around her as colleagues and training partners. How does she handle that? Also, the environment is spectacular, so I was just curious to learn more about it. What’s exciting and terrifying thing about a documentary like this is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen. I stuck around and hoped it would turn into a story.

I think a lot of people don’t realize there are two kind of [portrait] documentary films. There’s the kind of film where you have a famous person and you collect their archive retrospectively, and there are lot of great examples. The Sidney Poitier film is an amazing example, where the story’s done and you’re collecting his archive. My film is the reverse, where the subject’s young and she’s just starting her career. To go out and follow that is an act of filmmaking insanity because you have no idea if it’s going to turn into anything. We just got very lucky because all of these terrifying and wonderful things happened in Maya’s career. It became a pretty great, classic story.


POV: Many of my favourite documentaries are those where it’s so clear that the documentarian had an ability to follow a story wherever it went. Look at Hoop Dreams or The Act of Killing as examples where you go to make one movie, and it turns into another movie. Where was Maya when you met her and started shooting her? What had happened in terms of major events that drew you to this storyline, and at what point in time did you know the direction you were going in?

SJ: I met Maya in 2012 when she was living in Los Angeles. At that point, it didn’t even dawn on me that English was her second language and I didn’t have a chance to consider the fact that it would be complicated to make a film in Portuguese. I thought we’re in America, she speaks English, no problem! At that point, she had just had the accident during what was called the Code Red Swell. It was a very historic swell in Tahiti that’s in the first act of the film, and it was the first taste of really nasty criticism against her. A lot of the giants in the sport came out and said negative things about her publicly, so she was very fresh from the sting of realizing that they weren’t all friends in the big wave surfing world.

I thought this was significant, she’s starting to feel the prejudice against her, but I wasn’t thinking this was going to be a big theme of the film. It turned out that, unfortunately, it was. A couple of years later, she decided to be the first woman to surf Nazaré and had the goal of making the world record there. I mean, she just invented that goal in her head, because McNamara had made the first world record in 2011. Maya’s very competitive and thought, “Well, I want to be the first woman to make a world record.” Unfortunately, she had a huge accident that’s also in the film, and decided that the failure wasn’t going to be the moment that defined her career. It’s wonderful to have a character who is so tenacious and has a goal like making a world record, but we just didn’t know whether it was going to happen. It was a years-long process, very condensed in the film, with surgeries and rehabilitation and mental health challenges.  Finally, she not only did it once, but she did it twice, so it’s pretty cool to get to experience that ride.

POV: To that point, this film easily could have been simply a commercial for Maya and simply shown her as a two-dimensional character with the men dismissing her talent and appearing as idiots. Instead, the film shows her drive, obsessions, and commitment, but also the way that she’s slightly self-destructive. Can you talk about finding that in this storyline, especially when you’re so close to the subject after many years?

SJ: I had my own thought-shift in that experience. I remember when she had the final fusion surgery, I was of the mindset “I can’t believe anyone would do this to their body to achieve a goal.” I didn’t understand. I transformed my thinking and realized she’s a champion, she is willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a dream. That’s what makes a truly unique historic personality. It just made me want to finish the film even more. So, yeah, there’s a lot of subtlety there. I think her mom captured that and she also captured that in herself: some awareness of what she was doing, but she was also committed to her crazy goal.


POV: You’ve seen the sports movie where everyone just loves the hero. The film does not always show Maya or her colleagues in the best light, which in turn shows them as more human, more dimensional characters. Was that ever a challenge, or something you considered during the edit?

SJ: Well, that’s just a better movie. Of course.


POV: You say of course, but most people mess this up.

SJ: I think of our audience as being smart and intelligent and wanting to see the full picture of the human, and not some weirdly crafted corner of her persona. I had very skilled and talented editors helping me find the line because, obviously, you want to have a likeable character and you want to portray them authentically.


POV: Were there cuts that you can remember where it went too far one way or the other where you worried that you weren’t going to thread that needle?

SJ: The editing process was three years long. One thing that we really did have to compress in the edit were her years of suffering. There were versions of the cut where we thought an audience would not be able to withstand; it’s too brutal, it’s too gnarly, it’s too uncomfortable, we’re going to have to skip through surgery one and two and not belabor all of the misery.


POV: One of the more fascinating moments is when one of her major sponsors drops its support. That company is defined in some ways by celebrating exactly this type of tenacious character, and the films they fund tend to be visually rich, yet often merely two-dimensional celebrations of their retinue of athletes and their accomplishments. When they decided Maya didn’t have a story worth following any more, did you have moments of doubt yourself?

SJ: Oh no, not at all. I just saw the pressure that a sponsor puts on an athlete. It doesn’t mean she’s any less of a champion; it just means that they changed their business interests.


POV: You shot some of the behind-the-scenes footage for another documentary, which makes it even more fascinating as you’re providing a journalistic eye while they seem to be focused on something a bit more superficial.

SJ: That was a production by the sponsor that was being filmed about her, so I just ended up filming the behind-the-scenes.


POV: Talk about Maya’s response to the film, and the people closest to her, especially from those who admit to camera right from the start that they didn’t think she was good enough to do this.

SJ: What is her response? It just gives me a lot of joy because…Oh my god, I’m going to cry! That moment for her in Toronto was just a lifetime of recognition. It was a moment when she finally got to be applauded and that’s exactly what the film is about. She had never really been properly celebrated and recognized for not one, but two world records. It was very meaningful for me to get to give that to her and let her have the moment. It was very rewarding to watch people seeing her incredible talent and celebrating her.

POV: This is a film by a woman, about a woman, yet what do the men interviewed in the film think about it? Many of them do not come across very, but that’s what makes this film honest. Have they seen the film and have they commented on it?

SJ: No. Toronto was the premiere, so nobody’s seen the film. Carlos Burle, unfortunately, revealed a little bit too much of his true character in his interview. He spoke for himself and those are his words: he’s on camera, this is not editing, but I think he’s there and revealing how he really thinks and feels about her. I think with the other guys, it’s more good natured. Obviously, Sebastien [Steudtner] was a great support and incredible partner. I think Garret McNamara was also very supportive, and while he initially doubted her, he came around and, to this day, he’s a champion of hers. We have a very quick clip of Ross Clark Jones who’s just comedic and wonderful. I he’s also a great supporter and friend of hers. There no intention to make men look bad, but it’s just her partner of 10 years, Carlos Burle, who reveals in his interview the way he honestly felt about her.


POV: I don’t think it comes across that there’s any agenda. What’s extraordinary is that your interviews actually allowed them to reveal themselves. People might respond and say that it comes across as harsh, but I think it’s entirely in keeping with the type-A personality of this sport. These people are willing to put their lives on the line to go down on a big board down a wave.

SJ: Definitely. The feminist agenda that I had for the film was to support and celebrate a woman who was on a unique journey. It wasn’t simply about the men around her. It just happens that her training partners and colleagues have always been men, so those are the people who are available to interview and that’s who knew her and trained with her.


POV: Talk about the challenges of shooting. Obviously, the intimate stuff, you were there and trying to not get in the way of physical pain as she’s recovering, but equally, you’re trying to capture this incredible footage of these waves and her surfing them, can you talk about bringing these images to the screen?

SJ: Yeah, that’s a little comedic because when I first started this project, I’m a very DIY person, and I thought, “Well, I’m gonna learn surf cinematography!” I signed up for a course in Hawaii to study ocean cinematography and, within about a day, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. The guys who do this are former Olympic water polo players and body boarders. It takes decades to get good at it. So I partnered up with some of the best of the best in ocean cinematography. I’m proud that their work is shining in this movie because it’s its own special sub-genre. It’s a highly specialized kind of filming and it’s something that I never could have learned how to do, even in ten years, so the ocean cinematography is not mine.


POV: That being said, you were there for dynamic moments of joy and pain. What was that experience like?

SJ: That’s my specialty, with cinema verité character development. That’s what I do. You can’t film all the time, so you just try to figure out where you should be and the key moments, and not to get in the way. Maya’s a very natural person, and she’s been filmed enough that she’s not awkward around a camera. The work for me was just figuring out the right place to be at the right time. Her mom would help, she would say, “Surgery number three, you should come to Brazil.” Stuff like that was critical because those are the moments that you ultimately want to have for the movie.


POV: I think a documentary about those people capturing the images itself would be a fascinating one.

SJ: It would! And they’re such characters too because they’re totally obsessed with waves, maybe that’s my next [film]. You just gave me the idea!


POV: Has the film achieved distribution yet or are you still waiting on that?

SJ: We’re still waiting on that.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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